The Man Who Would Be Daddy
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It surprised him that the incident could have stirred so many memories within him. It was like someone poking a stick at the embers of a fire that hadn’t quite managed to go out.
It was all because he’d held the child, he thought. Holding her had made him remember. And yearn.
He blew out a breath, wishing there was some effective way to permanently anesthetize himself so that he didn’t feel anything anymore. Feeling nothing was preferable to feeling pain.
He took the yellow light automatically and turned down the street that fed into the minimall. And saw her. Even some distance away, he knew it had to be her, the woman who had screamed. The woman whose child he’d saved. She couldn’t have been anyone else. The woman, her hair as blond as her daughter’s, was standing on the northernmost curb of the minimall, frantically searching the thoroughfare for some sight of her van.
The way she stood, alert, poised, hopeful, made him think of a portrait of a woman from the old seafaring days. Days when women stood watch upon the widow’s walk of a Cape Cod house, looking at the sea for some sign of their husbands’ ships on the horizon.
As soon as she caught sight of the van, Malcolm saw a smile break out over her face. Even at a distance, it was nothing short of radiant.
So radiant that he found himself caught up in its brilliance. It made him feel good for the first time in years. It felt like sunshine seeping through the pores after months in the gloomy mist.
Malcolm saw the woman hurrying past his car, reaching the door of the van before it had come to a full stop. As she ran by, he saw the tears streaming down her face, tears that were in direct contradiction to the smile on her face.
“You got her back!” Christa cried.
Disbelief, joy and relief all tangled together in her voice. Her hands trembled as she opened the door and quickly climbed inside. They shook even more as she snapped open the harness that held Robin in place. She was certain that her heart was going to crack through her ribs as it pounded hard in relief.
“Not me,” Tyler told her as he got out of the vehicle. “He did.” Tyler jerked his thumb at Malcolm’s car.
Daughter pressed against her, Christa sobbed her relief into Robin’s hair. Then, pulling herself together, she stepped out of the van. With Robin in her arms, Christa turned to look at the man her brother had pointed out, the man whom she had seen tearing out after the carjacker.
The man who had given her back the life she saw flowing away from her only fifteen minutes earlier.
“I have no idea how to thank you,” Christa cried. Emotion choked her words away, and she threw her free arm about his neck and hugged him.
Caught in an emotional embrace between the woman and the child in her arms, Malcolm was temporarily at a loss. The last time he’d been standing like this, it had been Gloria and Sally whose embrace he’d shared.Sally with her perpetually sticky fingers, and Gloria, who had smelled like roses. This woman smelled of wildflowers. Memories battered at him, threatening to overwhelm him completely.
They assaulted him even harder as the woman brushed a kiss on his cheek.
He swallowed, separating himself from both of them. “I think that’ll do just fine,” he told her.
Christa wondered why she saw a hint of longing in his eyes as he looked at Robin before stepping away.
“Glad I could help,” he murmured. “Take care of her. Every day is precious.”
And then, just like that, he turned and walked away.
It took a minute before the image of the retreating back registered. He was walking away. The man who had given her back the very meaning of her life was walking away, and she didn’t even know his name.
Holding her daughter pressed close to her breast,
Christa hurried after Malcolm. Behind her, she heard her brother calling after her.
“Christa, you all right?” Bewilderment tinged his question.
She didn’t turn around. Instead, she held Robin a little tighter as she increased her stride. The little girl squirmed and wriggled against her in protest, but after what she’d just been through, there was no way Christa was going to set Robin down. At least, not yet.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she answered.
Her Good Samaritan, almost a foot taller than she, had a long stride that took him farther and farther away from her with every step. The only way she could catch up was if she ran. Weighed down, she couldn’t, but her eyes never left her target.
Why had he walked away from her just like that, as if he’d only picked up a pencil she’d dropped and returned it to her? Surely the impact of the situation had to have registered. Without even knowing her, he’d risked his life to get her daughter back. Why wouldn’t he let her thank him?
Feeling the weight of the huge debt she owed him, that she would always owe him, Christa couldn’t allow this moment to pass as if it were nothing.
“Mommy?” Robin whimpered, squirming again.
Christa kissed the top of her daughter’s head, but she didn’t slow down. “In a minute, honey. Mommy has to see someone.”
Her arms were locked tightly around Robin. She wished she could make a haven out of them, a haven that would keep Robin safe forever.
But she was safe now, thanks to him.
If nothing else, Christa needed to know what his name was.
Perspiration dripped into Jock Peritoni’s eyes as he looked up from the hot, uncooperative engine he’d been struggling with for the past half hour. The test drive he’d just taken the vehicle on had told him nothing. He didn’t have his father’s or Malcolm’s ear. He couldn’t just listen and be able to narrow down a problem.
He’d been only vaguely aware of the squealing tires and the life-and-death race that had taken place in the far end of the minimall. The engine had absorbed all his attention. He’d wanted to fix it before Malcolm arrived at work.
So far, all his efforts had been wasted.
Relief highlighted his grease-streaked face as he saw Malcolm approach. He’d begun to worry that something was wrong and his boss wasn’t coming in today. Malcolm was never late.
It was only ten minutes shy of nine in the morning, but Jock already felt himself overwhelmed. Wiping his hands on the back of his permanently stained jeans, the nineteen-year-old noticed the woman with the little girl in her arms. It looked as if she was hurrying to catch up to his boss, but Malcolm seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he was being followed.
That wasn’t unusual. Working here over the last year, Jock had noticed that Malcolm Evans had an ability to shut out everything around him when he wanted to.
Circumventing the front end of the car, Jock nodded a greeting at Malcolm. “Hi, boss. You had me worried. I thought maybe you weren’t going to come in.”
Malcolm hadn’t missed a day since he’d opened, though a lot of days he’d wanted to. He knew if he gave in to that feeling, he’d never stop. He’d done that once, and it had taken him almost two years to crawl out of that black hole. “I would have called you if I wasn’t going to be in.”
The voice was solemn, even. Jock’s father had told him that Malcolm had been the life of the party during their racing-circuit days, but Jock found it really hard to believe. He had yet to see a smile on the man. When he had once gathered enough courage to ask him about it, Malcolm had pointed out to him that Jock grinned enough for both of them.
Jock nodded toward the woman who had almost caught up to Malcolm. “Don’t look now, but you’re being followed.”
Preoccupied with memories that had suddenly assaulted him, memories he’d been working so hard to lock away, Malcolm hadn’t heard anyone walking behind him. He stopped and turned around abruptly.
Unable to stop quickly enough, Christa collided with him. Malcolm’s hands went out automatically to steady her and the child she clutched to her. He’d thought he’d left her behind with the policeman who claimed to be her brother.
What was she doing following him? Their business was over.
He bit off the question the way he might have bitten off the end of a cigar, spitting it out because it interfered with his goal. Having her anywhere around him, having the child anywhere around him, interfered with his ability to blank out his mind. To forget what only caused him pain to remember.
Christa caught herself swallowing before answering. She felt as if she was being interrogated. What was his problem? And why would anyone who was so obviously unfriendly put himself out to rescue her child? He was behaving like someone who didn’t want to become involved. But he had.
Robin was sinking. Christa shifted her, moving the little girl up higher in her arms. “I just wanted to thank you.”
“You already did.” Malcolm raised his dark eyes to indicate the rear parking lot where her van was standing, buffered by two squad cars.
“I mean really thank you,” she insisted. “Words don’t seem adequate.”
“Then don’t waste them,” he advised mildly.
With that, he turned his back on her and walked into the service area where ailing cars and the various parts that could get them up and running again were housed. In the back was a tiny alcove with a door that served as his office, a place where he retreated to when he wanted to be alone.
He was always alone now, Malcolm thought.
She had no idea what to make of him. Christa exchanged looks with the tall, gangly attendant who in turn raised wide, bony shoulders in a helpless shrug.
A car pulled up to the full-service island, and the attendant retreated. She wasn’t sure if it was her imagination, but he looked somewhat relieved about it.
Christa licked her lower lip and tried again. She took a step forward, only to have Malcolm whip around, his hand raised to keep her back.
“This area’s restricted,” he snapped. “You could get hurt here.”
Christa saw nothing that posed any immediate threat beyond the man’s temperament, but she took a step back, more in reaction to his demeanor than anything else.
When she spoke, her voice was patient. “Maybe I’m not making myself clear. You just gave me back my whole life. There has to be something I can do to repay you.”
Her eyes on Malcolm’s face, she stroked Robin’s hair to calm herself. The girl curled up against her, sucking her thumb. Her wide blue eyes were sliding closed, lulled by the soothing action.
He could remember Sally’s eyes sliding closed just like that. Sally, sleeping in his arms.
Damn it, why was he doing this to himself?
–His eyes had swept over her, and a glimmer of something tender flickered in them as they rested on Robin. But when he spoke, his voice was just as gruff as it had been a moment ago.
“You could get out of the way. I’ve got a lot of work to do today, and you’re interfering with my schedule.”
Stung, confused and just a shade annoyed, Christa retreated. Emotions raw, she felt completely out of her element here. It was clear that the man couldn’t be thanked. Maybe he had reacted before he thought and now regretted the whole incident. Why, she didn’t know. All she knew was that, for whatever reason, he had saved Robin, and that was enough.
She nodded, turning to leave. “All right,” she said quietly. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”
Malcolm was already leaning over the engine that had perplexed Jock. The engine he’d promised Mr. Mahoney was going to be purring by two this afternoon. “Don’t let her suck her thumb too much.”
The advice was carelessly tossed in her direction like a discarded gum wrapper. Surprised that he’d offered it, that he’d say anything that wasn’t yanked out of him, Christa turned around to look at him again.
He never looked up, but he could feel her eyes on him just the same. He knew she was waiting for him to say something more. She’d probably stand there all day until he did.
Malcolm moved the overhead light clipped to the hood so that it illuminated the area beyond the spark plugs. “If she doesn’t stop, she’ll distort her palate and you’ll be looking down the wrong end of a two-thousand-dollar bill for braces in about eight years.”
The prediction stunned her almost as much as the man himself did. Did he have children? She glanced at the sign to the extreme left that told her that Malcolm Evans was the proprietor of Evans Car Service. She wondered if that was him. Something vague, just beyond the periphery of her thoughts, nagged at her, but she couldn’t grab hold of it.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” She waited, but he said nothing else. With a perplexed sigh, Christa walked away from the service station.
Tyler was still waiting for her when she returned to her van. He was leaning against the hood of his car, talking to Elliott. The other squad car was nowhere in sight.
Straightening as she approached, Tyler nodded toward the gas station. He’d watched her brief encounter with Robin’s rescuer. Body language told him that it hadn’t gone the way Christa had wanted it to.
“What was that all about?”
Christa opened the passenger side and climbed in with Robin. All she wanted to do now was go home, sit holding Robin in her arms and forget about all this.
“I was just trying to thank him. I wanted to do something to show how very grateful I am.” She shrugged as she snapped the seat harness around Robin. “He told me to get out of the way.”
Tyler had surmised as much from the look on her face. “Some people can’t handle gratitude. They get embarrassed.”
Christa climbed out again, then pulled the door shut. She turned her face up to Tyler’s. “I know, but if he hadn’t been there—”
He wouldn’t let her do this to herself. She’d already been through too much lately as it was.
“But he was.” When she looked away, Tyler bracketed her shoulders with his hands, forcing her to raise her eyes to his. “Don’t dwell on what ifs, Christa. It’ll drive you crazy. You were the one who taught me that, remember?”
She sighed. “Yes, I remember.”
Her shoulders sagged as if all the fight had been drained from her. Tyler knew better than that, but he let his hands drop to his sides.
“We’re going to need you to come down to the station and make a statement.”
Christa just wanted to put this all behind her. Being a cop’s daughter, she should have realized she couldn’t do that so quickly. “Now?”
Ordinarily, he would have said yes. But this was his sister. And though she was trying to put up a brave front, he knew she was shaken. Hell, he was shaken by what had almost happened. She deserved a little slack.
“No, why don’t you go home first? Take care of the bump on your head and clean up that scrape.” Taking hold of her hand, he turned it to examine her palm. The blood was already beginning to dry. “You can come down to the precinct later.” She flashed a small smile in response. Even that lit up her face. It was more like the Christa he was accustomed to. “Want me to drive you home?”
Home was a condo she had just leased last week. It was a little more than a mile down the road and still in a state of chaos, but right now, it was a haven.
She shook her head. “No, you go do what you have to do to earn your paycheck.” Christa saw the concern in his eyes. She placed a hand on his arm. “I told you, I’m fine.”
Tyler could only shake his head in response. “Stubborn as ever.”
Her eyes slanted toward the gas station. Malcolm Evans, if that was his name, was bending over the car he’d begun working on when she walked away. Its yawning hood was hanging open over him like the mouth of a shark that was getting ready to deliver a final bite.
“Yeah,” she answered, “I am.”
A deep, cleansing breath that helped her push aside the entire harrowing experience. She pulled open the door on the driver’s side of the van and climbed in. Robin sat dozing in her seat. Poor thing, she was exhausted.
That makes two of us.
Tyler shut the door behind her. “Buckle up or I’ll have to issue you a ticket.”
“Bully.” She slid the metal tongue into the clip. It clicked into place. “I’ll be by later this afternoon, all right?”
“Whenever you’re ready. Ask for Detective Harold. He’ll ease you through this.”
As she pulled out of the parking lot, she saw her brother in her rearview mirror. He was walking over to the gas station. She wondered if he was going to have any better luck with the solemn-eyed Good Samaritan than she had had.
The police station had grown a great deal since she’d wandered the small, narrow halls as a child. Those times, she had been ushered in by her mother to visit her father at work.
A sense of pride had always shimmied through her here, even though she’d been very young. The pride had multiplied as her brothers joined the force. Christa liked the idea of them being part of what made things right in the world, part of what kept the peace.
The halls weren’t narrow anymore. Renovated, the station seemed like something that belonged on the ground floor of a corporate building, not a police station. But it was a station nonetheless. A place where perpetrators were fingerprinted, where victims told their stories. It was a place where people came after bad things had happened to them.
People like her.
Christa shivered and wished she didn’t have to go through this.
It could have been a lot worse, she reminded herself as she squared her shoulders.
Detective Harold was a new name to her. She’d known many of the old-timers. Her father had always brpught his work home with him, cleaning up some of the coarser, uglier details as he went along. The men he worked with became a phantom part of the family.
The redheaded policewoman at the long reception desk looked up and waited expectantly as she asked, “May I help you?”
“I’m Christa Winslow. I’m here to see Detective Harold.”
The policewoman rose, nodding as if she’d been expecting her. “Wait right here.” She disappeared behind a wall that separated the long front reception area from the rest of the station.
Christa heard the automatic doors in the rear of the lobby open and close. Curious, she turned to see who had entered the precinct.
It was her reluctant Good Samaritan. He walked across the gleaming tiled floor, the heels of his scarred boots beating out a steady cadence, marking his approach. Even if the foyer had been crowded, she still would have singled him out. There was an aura about him.
A hundred or so years ago, people would have stopped to gawk at the stranger who rode into Dodge. He had an air of quiet power about him, power that wasn’t to be challenged. He was tall and straight like a doublebarreled shotgun and looked to be twice as lethal when crossed.
Something made her doubt that the appearance was deceiving.
Their eyes met at exactly the same moment, and she nodded at him. He slowly acknowledged the greeting.
She looked out of place here, Malcolm thought. She reminded him of a daisy pushing her way through a crack in the pavement.
When he reached her, she spoke first. It didn’t surprise him. He wouldn’t have spoken at all. The nod was enough for him.
Apparently, it wasn’t enough for her.
Her greeting was bright, cheery, as if they were old friends rather than people who didn’t even know each other’s names. What was her name? Christine? Kristin? No, the policeman had called her…Christa. That was it. Christa.
He didn’t have trouble recalling that the baby’s name was Robin.
“Are you here to give a statement?”
Malcolm only nodded in reply. He didn’t want to be here, but he couldn’t very well tell that to the police. So he had worked through lunch and gotten Mahoney’s car in running order, then left when the part-timer had shown up to help Jock. Though he had hoped only to have the gas station cover meager expenses, business was picking up steadily. If it continued, he was going to have to hire more help. The thought didn’t please him. The fewer people he had to interact with, the better.
Christa remembered what he’d said to her earlier. “I guess this is really interfering with your schedule.” Again, he nodded. Why couldn’t he say something? Nerves sharply cut through the veneer of politeness she was attempting to maintain. “You know, they’re going to ask you to talk.”
The way annoyance appeared and then disappeared across her brow amused him. His mouth curved just the slightest bit.
“I’ll talk,” he answered quietly.
He could smile. The sight of it softened her. “I’m sorry about all this.”
It hadn’t occurred to him to hold her accountable for the inconvenience. He’d chosen to pursue the fleeing van; she hadn’t forced him to do it.
“Not your fault.”
She blew out a breath. “I know, but if you hadn’t come to my rescue, to Robin’s rescue—”
“Then things would be a lot more serious than they are now.” He saw another apology or exclamation of everlasting gratitude hovering on her lips. He wanted neither. “Forget it.”
It was a curt command, but she wasn’t about to obey. “I can’t,” she insisted, vehemently enough to catch his attention. “I can’t forget it. What happened today could have changed my life forever. It could have changed Robin’s life forever. Or ended it. You prevented that. It’s not something I can just push out of my mind.” She paused only for a moment, searching his face. “Why won’t you let me thank you?”
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